Tag Archives: Gunnar Gunnarsson

Global Culture and Gunnar Gunnarsson

When faced with mysteries, like this troll on Reykjanes …

… the global human sees its emotions instead.

The Bridge Between the Continents, Reykjanes, Iceland

Some premeditation is involved. That’s what Pinterest is for.

It’s not original, but it’s a fun bit of colonization. What would Homus Globalus do, after all, if it saw the ogre climb her staircase above Gunnar’s birth house in the Lagarfljót?

Laugh, no doubt. Should we laugh about Icelanders in their own country? The question is absurd to people who would do this:

The global human loves humans and sees them as beneficial additions to all environments. Icelanders, being isolated island people, actually invited them in. This is the same bind that drove Gunnar to Denmark in 1907, to become a published writer, and then saw him ostracized in the 1930s, because he had published in Danish. There are always these double-binds. That’s the human condition. Even in Iceland. We should be gentle on ourselves.

Iceland Speaks Through Her Black Sand Beaches

At the mouth of the Sellfljót, Iceland speaks.

Here, human activity, such as a lost fishing float, is a glaring addition to her conversation, but remains dwarfed by it.

These beaches are at the end of a 30-kilometre-road and a two hour walk, so they feature in few guide books. We can shift our point of view and eliminate human dominance in the image, but looking out to sea…

… or even climb the hill to … and look from there.

It is a different story at the mouth of the Jökullsá, just south of the famed glacial lagoon. They are in all the guide books, just footsteps away from the madness of the Ring Road.

Whether the beach is really black is questionable, but, still, it’s lovely. The river has built an estuary over the last couple years, and seals have moved in. Note how the human story now dominates: the image has directionality and an object, which is more dominant than Iceland and the Atlantic themselves. It’s not just a matter of a camera’s point of view. Even if we sweep up an even larger pile of fishing garbage on the Sellfljót…

… Iceland dominates, and the human story remains foreign and intrusive, despite its beauty (which is largely in the way it catches the light.) These effects are not created. by the light, either. Back on Diamond Beach, the light reveals a story of humans on the hunt, either for seals or icebergs…

… while on the Heraðssandur…

… the light and the land speak. Still, it might be that nature and humans can coexist…

… and it might be that putting nature to work, such as at the aluminum smelter on an old farm in Reyðarfjörður …

Sómastaðir

The oldest stone house in Iceland, rebuilt by Alcoa, and now a National Historic Site.

… is a comfortable form of coexistence as well, but it might not. As an example, just consider that the hydroelectric dam in the Highlands that powers the Alcoa plant at Sómastaðagerði  above required the diversion of Jöklá into the Jökullsá, and the subsequent combination of both rivers on the Heraðssandur (below) to prevent flooding, all funded by the industrial project but no doubt predating it by many centuries.

The transformation of a continually-shifting pair of estuaries into a stable beach system is a great feat of civil engineering. If you want black sand in Iceland, here it is.

However, the sand, and the shifting estuary system has only moved further south. Here you can find exquisite black sand beaches framing lagoons north of Höfn, in the Fjörur sandspit in  Álftafjörður, or on the Hvalsnesfjara in Lónsvik in Lónfjörður, cutting historically-significant and productive farms off from the sea.

The people whose ancestors have been here for 1100 years might be furious, but the resulting black sand beaches are beautiful. The madness of the Ring Road is only metres away, but is strong enough to keep people off. Not so the Atlantic, though. It is devouring the beach even as it builds it up.


That’s just the thing, though. Back at the Glacial Lagoon, the destruction is also a dominant force. Have a look:

Even if you pull the humans and their attempts to view nature free of themselves away from the picture, what remains is destruction, because the lagoon, the river, these icebergs and the black sands of Diamond Beach are all a result of a dying glacier, melting under climate change. Nature, this is not, but what nature looks like as it corrects an industrial intervention. Of course, at that other great black sand beach, Dritvík, you can ignore the ogres, if you like, and even the ruins of Iceland’s great fishing camp, home to 500 men every summer…

 

… and if you forego that trail because no-one mentioned it, and the tourbus took you to the trailhead at Djupalón, you can forego the ogre there, too, if you like, and enjoy the force of the water on the black sand.

You wouldn’t be thinking like Iceland, though, nor would you in the Hvalfjörður, where the black sand beach is actually the fighter plane airbase that protected the Allied fleet during World War II…

The point is, these black sand beaches are exquisitely beautiful, but it’s best not to bring one’s preconceptions of nature to them. Most of us come from countries and cultures in which history is represented in buildings and human social activity. It’s no different on Iceland, just that here the buildings are made of sand and the human social activity is usually done in conversation with the sand. When you walk those beaches, you are talking with powerful creative and destructive forces. Gunnar wrote about this in his great novel “The Shore of Life,”

which he wrote as a cry of pain after the Battle of the Somme. It is as great a human story as Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People,”

but one that gets far deeper into the soul of the land, right where it battles with the sea.

Diamond Beach

This is the land’s story.

 

Gunnar and the Elves of Vopnafjörður

In downtown Vopnafjörður, right across from the slaughterhouse, there’s a fine elf hill. Gunnar Gunnarsson grew up in this neighbourhood. He would have seen this hill everyday, and no doubt climbed it often.

Now, it might be hard to visit a “real” elf here (at any rate, it’s out of your control), but you can visit Gunnar.

He has flowers and birds, and place for you to sit down.

This is a pre-Happy-Camper kind of Icelandic travel. There are a lot of Icelanders honours with their very own copper head in the trees. To visit them is a kind of pilgrimage.

Hi, Gunnar.

Of Seals and Men

Notice how little attention the seals are paying to either global warming or humans attracted to global warming and seals.

There’s a lovely crowd of them off of the mouth of the glacial river flowing out of the glacial lagoon these days, but, to tell the truth, if you go the the Selfljót and look for them in the estuary at the tide change you will have a lot more fun, even if you don’t see a single one.

This was the Iceland that Gunnar left for Denmark, and the one he returned to when war threatened the world. It’s still there, if you look for it, because even if Gunnar didn’t find it again, and you aren’t likely to, either, with a little luck the search will be the finding. Iceland will change you, if you work at it.

Reading Iceland

The technique is exquisite. You let the sun and gravity break off a bit of a glacier, you soak it for a few days in salt water, then cast it up on a beach of black volcanic sand. After a night of the waves splashing sand all over it, it sets in the sun. It’s really fun to chase this art form down,. Here’s a troll with a monk in its belly, holding Christ as a child. And isn’t the Mjalður the Bell Ram off to the left? Why I think it is.

If you haven’t read Gunnar’s Advent, it’s time.

Of course, you could just go right to the source, though.

Welcome to the 21st Century, Gunnar

 

Gunnar argued for the independence of Iceland during Germany’s military struggles of the 1940s, on the principle that the land is written in the chain-linked patterns of the Icelandic sagas, with the suggestion that the Icelanders wrote the sagas in response to the chain-link rhymes of the land.

Grundarfjördur

His observation is obvious. Equally obvious is how poor a tool such observations are for deflecting a military conqueror. Less obvious is the point that when you are from the land and have nothing and yet have to do something, you use what you have. Still, the approach has its dangers. It might stress one form of pattern, for instance, but it obscures another. So, let’s look at Gunnar’s saga again. This time, note the story of trolls and ogres written in the rock.

Gunnar was a humanist, a twentieth century man. This tale of ogres and epic battles is one he could have told as well, including how it generates the water of life as cold passes into warmth. That he didn’t is an example of how writers adapt to their audience. It is also an example of how we can re-read them, and free them… and us.

 

Living Among the Ruins: Italy and Iceland

This is the kind of thing that annoyed the Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson in 1928. This is Hadrian’s Villa, built in the year 134 near Tivoli, in what is now Italy. He thought it was too bright.He meant that this man and his politics were wrong for Scandinavia (which, to him, included Baltic Germany):

Mussolini Rejects Democratic Rule in 1928

He also meant that this version of Hadrian’s Tivoli villa was the wrong approach to art:

The Tivoli Gardens Amusement Park in Copenhagen

Gunnar didn’t see art as a populist entertainment. He was after something else. This is the architecture he liked:

Landhus Farm, Fljótsðalur

You could consider it a part of the landscape, he said. Almost all the houses of this type are ruins now, but not like Hadrian’s ruins:

Like this:

In the 1950s onward, the Icelandic government gave away trees, as part of a nationalist program of rebuilding the eroded landscapes of the country. Out of the same impulse as Gunnar, people planted them on the sites of their former turf houses, leaving the hills, the intended recipients of the trees, bare.  The government keeps a few turf houses as museums:

Farmhouse Window,  Bustarfell

It is the same impulse that drove Gunnar from the Tivoli Gardens. He considered that mixing northern culture, an expression of northern land and climate, with a southern one would destroy it, such as the German Reich’s turn from a people’s culture, based on farm life, to an Imperial one, as documented in the image below.

For Gunnar, independence meant to have no masters at all, and the point of modernity was to refine old folk ways. He shared that with the Italians and Germans of his day. He was more clear than they were, however, on the price of Imperialism and power exercised as force. It’s too bad he didn’t speak more clearly about this, but at least we have the ruins…

Buðahraun

… to speak…

… for him …

… now:

Sandgerði

Reykjavik is Hadrian’s Villa.